Mentoring helps faculty aim for spectacular

Ed Samulski has a thing for Monarch butterflies. Not as a collector, but as a chemist with a crazy idea about how he might harness their hidden power.

“If you were to ask me, ‘What is the blackest thing you’ve ever seen?’ I would say, ‘the black on a Monarch butterfly,’” he said. “It is just dead black, and it is that way not because there is a dye but because of the nanostructure that gives it that property.”

For years, Samulski contemplated the depths of the butterfly’s blackness, wondering if it was possible somehow to replicate that same light-trapping nanostructure on a solar cell.

If he could make a solar cell that could absorb and retain more sunlight, it would become more efficient. And if such cells could be produced on a mass scale, it could be the breakthrough necessary to make solar power a viable alternative energy source around the world.

To help him test his theory, Samulski needed someone who was both intelligent and knowledgeable about optics.

That’s when Rene Lopez entered his life; or rather, when Samulski decided to intrude into his.

Forming a bond

The story of how Samulski, a heralded chemistry professor near the end of his career, met Lopez, a brand new arrival on the physics faculty, is a prime example of the culture of interdisciplinary collaboration at Carolina.

“Rene was one of the interdisciplinary hires made by Carolina’s Institute for Advanced Materials, Nanoscience and Technology (IAM),” Samulski said. “Because of his interdisciplinary training and research focus, I knew he could be a good resource on this problem.”

Lopez shared the story during a recent workshop on mentoring sponsored by the Center for Faculty Excellence. Others spoke of their difficulties finding a mentor, while Lopez talked about how his mentor found him.

When Samulski walked into Lopez’s lab in the basement of Phillips Hall, he didn’t mince words about why he had come, Lopez recalled.

“Doing something that matters”

“I am old,” Samulski said. “I want to use what time I have left doing something that matters. I want to get something done.’”

And then he described his idea about the blackness of a Monarch butterfly – and how he needed Lopez’s expertise to test whether it could actually work.

Samulski, who earned his Ph.D. from Princeton more than 40 years ago, is generally interested in the study of synthetic and biological macromolecules in materials ranging from rubbery elastic networks to semi-crystalline and liquid crystalline polymers.

He served as director of a NASA University Research Engineering and Technology Institute on Biologically Inspired Materials and, along with chemistry professor Joe DeSimone, is co-founder of Liquidia Technologies, a Research Triangle start-up company formed to develop a new technology for producing nanoparticles for drug and gene delivery.

Two decades ago, Samulski hired DeSimone into Carolina’s chemistry department, and in 2005, Lopez was hired by the Department of Physics and Astronomy in association with the IAM, which was initiated by DeSimone. For the past decade, the IAM has served as an interdisciplinary research institute coordinating research in nanomaterials and nanobiosciences.

Administrators in the College of Arts and Sciences are looking at ways to enhance the culture of interdisciplinary collaboration even further, perhaps by expanding the study of applied sciences.

Lopez, who was born in Mexico, earned his Ph.D. in physics from Vanderbilt and spent time working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, a federal lab geared to developing solutions in clean energy and global security. Among his research specialties is photovoltaics, a method of generating power by converting solar radiation into electricity.

What Samulski remembers most about his first encounter with Lopez was that he knew he had come to the right place. When Samulski started talking about his idea, Lopez began nodding in agreement.

“The idea was sort of beautiful and he understood it immediately,” Samulski said.

In that moment nearly six years ago, an instant bond was formed.

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Published February 15, 2013.